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Celebrating the flying 'birdmen'

People gather at park to celebrate anniversary of 1971 event that launched worldwide hang gliding renaissance.

May 23, 2011|By Alexandra Baird, dailypilot@latimes.com
(Scott Smeltzer )

NEWPORT BEACH — With aircraft made of little more than bamboo and plastic sheets, a ragtag group of aerial adventurers threw themselves off a hilltop here on May 23, 1971, launching what became known as the birth of the hang gliding renaissance.

About a dozen people gathered at San Miguel Park on Monday to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Otto Lilienthal birthday meet, named in honor of a 19th-century German aviation pioneer.

Although hang gliding had evolved since the 1800s, organizer and Newport Beach resident Frank Colver said the 1971 event sparked a worldwide explosion in the growth of the sport.

It started when Jack Lambie, a Long Beach schoolteacher, worked with his class to build the Hang Loose.

When the class took the plane to a nearby hill, the story goes, some of the students took off with it. Soon, Lambie and his homemade glider drew media attention. He started mailing out plans for the Hang Loose, which cost less than $25 to make, and he corresponded with other aviation enthusiasts.

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Joe Faust, then editor of Low and Slow magazine, helped plan the Otto Lilienthal meet with Lambie and others.

"It's very exhilarating just to leave the ground," Faust said about his early gliding experiences. "You run, and all of a sudden you're not on the ground anymore. You never forget those first moments."

Faust now lives in Los Angeles and edits the online magazine Hang Glider. He said the sport is an addiction and a love for some.

One of those is Bob Trampenau, who lived in upstate New York when the meet took place. When he received in the mail one of Lambie's original plans for the Hang Loose in 1971, he went for it, spending the summer building one with his friends.

"The spirit of hang gliding really got to me," Trampenau said.

Four years later, he moved to California and started Seedwings, the hang gliding company he still runs out of Santa Barbara.

"This meeting was the beginning of it and it was the most popularized," Trampenau said. "It was the seed, but the movement was springing up almost simultaneously across the country."

The Lilienthal meet became part of history when writer Russell Hawkes wrote an article about the event, which was published in National Geographic. The Los Angeles Times also featured the story on its front page on May 24, 1971, reporting that 500 spectators flocked to the hill to watch the "birdmen" fly.

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